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Aug 07, 2015
In November 2007 I attended the opening of the Peninsula Tokyo hotel. Money exchange was about Y=102 to the Australian dollar and the city seemed an absolute bargain. It will be a while before our currency climbs back to such giddy conversion rates, but the Japanese capital is still a good-value experience, especially if you do some research.
All those hoary old stories of $50 melons and $20 cups of coffee may have put off travellers but it's time to dismiss the myths. My younger son, Joe, who has worked there for the past decade, reckons Tokyo is a much better-value city than his Sydney home: you just need to know where to look.
If any Asian city could properly be dubbed the Manhattan of the East, Tokyo is it. We are talking high action, haute fashion, late nights, neon overload and a press of humanity. Energy seems to rise from the pavement like steam and visitors to the glossiest shopping districts -- Ginza, Marunouchi, Roppongi, Shibuya and Shinjuku -- may feel swept along on a wave of high-end commerce. Best-value fashion shops throughout Tokyo are Zara and Uniqlo and, for hours of browsing, stationery stores that sell handmade Japanese paper (washi) products.
The biggest retail temple is Roppongi Hills, sprawling across almost 12ha of shops, galleries, restaurants, museums and an observation deck. Tokyo Midtown is another so-called lifestyle mall and features inexpensive food-court style dining in the basement of its Galleria building. It is also home to Billboard Live Tokyo, an auditorium-style venue with big-name music acts.
Use the efficient subway to get around and taxis (white-gloved drivers, auto-opening doors) for late-night loops. Always carry a card from your hotel with its address written in Japanese characters.
But try to avoid the sardine-squash of rush hour and remember that Sunday is going-out day for many Tokyoites, so public places such as parks and shrines will be crowded and restaurants busy.
Tokyo is a city of distinct neighbourhoods and it's hard to grasp its core. I recommend an orientation bus tour with Japan Travel Bureau or Gray Line (book at hotel tours desks) to see the blue-ribbon sights such as Tokyo Tower, erected in 1958 and modelled after Paris's Eiffel Tower. Make a note of destinations you wish to return to -- say, the National Museum of Modern Art or the Imperial Palace -- and carry a detailed map.
In fine weather, I'd be sure to do a morning tour on the open-topped Tokyo Skybus, which departs on the hour from the Marunouchi Building near Tokyo Station.
Then hit the stores of nearby Ginza district (if there's time for just one department store, make it Mitsukoshi, known as the Harrods of Tokyo); head for the basement food halls with their tissue-wrapped fruit, fabulous candies and delicious bento boxes. (Buy a bento lunch and head to nearby Hibiya Park for a picnic.)
Akihabara (or Electric Town) is the district for hi-tech novelties; this is where geeks and boffins come to swoon and there are instruction manuals in English (not always the case elsewhere). A Hello Kitty MP3 player, anyone?
For a glimpse of a more tranquil Japan, visit the northeastern suburb of Asakusa with its parade of family-run shops leading up to Sensoji, the city's oldest temple. Buy pungent incense, sake sets, decorative chopsticks, origami paper and bamboo back-scratchers.
A lovely prelude to a visit here is to catch a boat on the Sumida River from Hamarikyu Gardens, which edge Tokyo Bay.
Also with a flavour of the past is Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida-ku, which presents a comprehensive look at the city's history from its 16th-century beginnings.
There's a replica of a kabuki theatre, a shogun's mansion, festival trappings and re-creations of typical buildings through the centuries.
The multistorey Oriental Bazaar (closed Thursdays), between Aoyama and Harajuku, is a one-stop emporium for the best souvenirs; it's located on Omotesando, a tree-lined boulevard often called the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo, and home to fashion houses galore. To visit this area, catch a train to Harajuku, where on weekends Tokyo's youthful tribes hang out, dressed in gothic gear, spiky punk get-ups, frilly maids' uniforms and just about every fancy costume in between. For fab burgers, Wolfgang Puck Express, part of the well-known California chef's franchise, is near the north exit of Harajuku station.
Also close to the station is Meiji Jingu shrine and gardens, once the estate of a warlord and entered via the country's two largest ceremonial torii gates.
It's an oasis of old trees and glorious irises (which flower in late May and June) and a photographer's delight on festival days when shrine-goers wear traditional kimono and yukata.
Good-value meals are available at izakaya (eateries that are a sort of cross between tapas bars and pubs); go for a Kirin or Asahi beer and marinated morsels on skewers. Mark Robinson, a Tokyo-based writer who has recently written a book about izakaya, recommends (among others) Mimasuya ("supposedly Tokyo's longest continuously running izakaya") in Chiyoda-ku, Shinsuke in Bunkyo-ku, and Maru in Shibuya-ku.
Even in pricey Ginza there are laneways with tiny yakitori and teppanyaki bars (look for head-high split curtains over the door and plastic food models in the windows), often with just a handful of stools at a counter.
Remember Uma Thurman's killing spree scene in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill? The set was modelled on Gonpachi in Nishi-Azabu, a double-height dining room that serves traditional dishes in a party atmosphere.
Still lost in translation? Head to Park Hyatt Tokyo in Shinjuku, which served as a set for the 2003 hit movie of that name. Built above soaring office blocks, the hotel's entry-level reception area, on the 41st floor, feels like a space-station portal. Repair to the bar and order a Manhattan.
Travel & Indulgence editor Susan Kurosawa is a former Tokyo resident.
Izakaya: the Japanese Pub Cookbook by Mark Robinson, with photography by Masashi Kuma (Kodansha International-Bookwise, $39.95).
Pictured: The northeastern suburb of Asakusa; Akihabara (or Electric Town); Hamarikyu Gardens; Mitsukoshi.